A GROUP OF HORSE ENTHUSIASTS staked a claim on Thursday to casino tax revenues that they would like to tap for a feasibility study of a horse park in central Massachusetts. If that study is positive, the group said, they would likely tap more of the fund to help pay for construction of the estimated $150 million facility.
The New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association has been talking up the horse park idea for some time, but on Thursday the association assembled a group of consultants and supporters to make the case to reporters. The association’s presentation came the same week that the Senate Ways and Means Committee called for using $15 million of the casino tax revenues to help balance the fiscal 2018 budget. Other lawmakers have suggested other uses for the money.
The proposed horse park would feature a track for racing, equestrian venues, and an agri-tourism village complete with artisans making saddles and shoeing horses. The horse breeders, equestrian officials, and consultants at the presentation painted a picture of a bucolic, family-friendly facility patterned after the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, and the Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, New York.
With thoroughbred racing on its last legs in Massachusetts, that vision seems like a stretch. Walter Downey, a financial advisor and horse breeder, said most of his horses are stabled out of state. But he said he would bring them back to Massachusetts in a minute if there was a facility here where he could race and train them. “I’m not alone,” he said.
The horsemen association’s own feasibility study, developed last year by the Center for Economic Development at UMass Amherst, predicted a horse park would generate 957 jobs and $99 million a year in economic activity, including $53.7 million from out of state.
The casino tax revenues attracting all the interest on Beacon Hill are in the so-called Horse Race Development Fund. By statute, the money can only be used to sweeten the purses of horse races in Massachusetts. But with Suffolk Downs sold and Massachusetts thoroughbred horse racing in the doldrums, a significant chunk of the money in the fund is just sitting idle.
Brian Hickey, the association’s lobbyist and the host of Thursday’s presentation, said the group would like to see the law changed so the money in the Horse Race Development Fund could be used to directly support the state’s horse-racing industry. He estimated a couple hundred thousand dollars would be needed for the horse park feasibility study, and indicated more of the money would be needed if the horse park itself moves forward. He said revenues from simulcasting races from around the country could also be used to support the park.
“Don’t we have an obligation to at least do the feasibility study?” Hickey asked, noting how a proposal involving 1,000 jobs in central Massachusetts rarely comes along.
“If we were high-tech, they would bend over backwards for us. If we were manufacturing, they would bend over backwards,” he said. “Any other industry asking for this, the answer would be yes.”